The following is an edited version of a letter sent to Sally Potter (via her online forum), director of Orlando and Rage (amongst other films).
Following the screening of Thriller (and shorts) at the BFI last Friday, I caught a brief word with you. You were most generous in response. I garbled something about neutrality, nascence and the image and we agreed it might be best I follow up in a more nuanced way here, online…
…I wandered into the bookshop at the Cornerhouse Cinema in Manchester and happened to spy Sophie Mayer’s book, The Cinema Of …. A Politics of Love (Wallflower, 2009). I felt an urge to buy it there and then, for it all became so obvious (why hadn’t I thought so before?!), your work is a vital source for a project I am slowly feeling my way around, called ‘Seeing Degree Zero’; a project, or an ethic (?) that is largely inspired by Barthes’ notion of the Neutral. I was very taken by your new work, Rage. It’s ultra-vivid, yet pared down aesthetic offers lots of interesting potential for a kind of visual equivalence to ‘degree zero’ writing. The latter being a form of literature that Barthes, writing at the beginning of his career in Writing Degree Zero (1953), describes ‘could no longer find purity anywhere but in the absence of all signs, finally proposing the realisation of this Orphean dream: A writer without Literature. Colourless writing like Camus’s, Blanchot’s or Cayrol’s, for example, or conversational witing like Queneau’s, represents the last episode of a Passion of writing’.
However, it is only towards the end of his life that Barthes returns to a more explicit concept (though that is too harsh a word) of the Neutral; defined as the suspension of binary oppositions. Barthes refers, for example, to the ‘indecision’ of pronunciation between the sounds ‘l’ and ‘r’ as they occur in the Japanese language as a position outside of meaning. He is interested in a ‘third term’, something that slips out of the system of symbolic meaning. When we read sentences upon a page our eyes are accustomed to glide over the empty spaces between characters. Yet those ‘neutral’ spaces are precisely what allow the collection of characters to become meaningful groupings; those burning white spaces are what force meaning to arise. To go beyond, outside of the structures of meaning – into those white spaces – can indeed be something far more destabilising, radical, experimental. As you write on your blog: ‘There is no zero point in writing a script, of course. Just the illusion of nothingness before the something appears. But confronting emptiness, a kind of void-state, whilst sometimes terrifying (will anything ever happen?) is also exhilarating. A long view opens up, where all seems possible. Not just fresh starts, freed from habits of all kinds, personal and professional, but even the horizon itself changes’ (From Zero).
I can’t begin now, here, to write about Yes, but yes!, your film is an obvious starting point (in more than one sense)… and similarly Barthes’ Neutral relates to ideas about affirmation, openness, nascence and ambiguities. Even on my first glance through Sophie Mayer’s wonderful book – as I still stood in the bookshop – I came across all number of related reference points (and an associated sense of an ethic), many of which appear in direct quotation. For instance, you speak of the importance of ‘transformation’ in your films, ‘Nothing’s fixed, everything’s impermanent, everything’s in flux … we can be part of the transformation’ (p.1); you raise (with an interesting reference to W.G. Sebald) the importance of slowness, ‘to the more sustainable long-term, difficult ideas of time, space, eternity, birth and death’ (p.72); you refer to colour on film as ‘flat, boring, neutral’ (p.104); you aspire to ‘create openness that might then have a small part in the transformation of the individual life of the viewer’ (p.138); you work from James Joyce’s use of the word ‘yes’ as a verb, (‘he asked me would I yes to say yes…’) (p.190-191); and you try to put ‘falling in love on the screen’ as a form of awakening (p.202). So many starting points, interstices, possibilities. And, of course, you don’t just suggest these things, you look for them through the lens, you place them upon the screen. I’m fascinated by the ability to genuinely, practically sculpt and choreograph a certain ‘seeing degree zero’.
Of course lexically, the ‘Neuter’ refers to ‘neither masculine nor feminine, and verbs … neither active or passive, or action without regime’ (Barthes). Here the connection to Orlando is an obvious one, both Virginia Woolf’s original book and your film. To this day, I distinctly remember the evening I watched Orlando on television, on Channel Four. It was then quite by chance I discovered there was to be a retrospective of your work at the BFI. It was quite off my radar as I came away from the Cornerhouse with Sophie Mayer’s book, but adding to the epiphany I had there, it felt more than coincidence that suddenly you were ‘everywhere’ at the BFI. I made my excuses and hurried down from York to attend the ‘In Conversation’ event you held with Tilda Swinton (BFI, 2.12.09). She came out with that wonderful line (and idea) about your work capturing something of the ‘soul’, or the core of identity, which we discover (in a celebratory sense) has no identity. It felt like a pilgrimage of sorts, to revisit the film that – as for so many others – had had such an immediate impact on me upon first viewing. But I was also drawn to see Tilda Swinton in person. In the flesh. In a commentary on the film, you describe her as having ‘an unencumbered face. A quality of almost transparency, not just in her skin, but in her performance’. It is a remark that makes immediate sense, yet how, why? What is this quality? I am led to wonder if the Neutral is something that can, must even, be embodied, or is of the body. This leads me to Emilyn Claid’s book, Yes? No! Maybe… : Seductive Ambiguity in Dance (2006), which intriguingly brings forth concepts of seduction, androgyny and ambiguity as ‘embodied strategies’. And a connection can be made perhaps with a comment you make on your blog, ‘The act of framing an actor’s face seems to activate a narrative, not one that exists in time, but out of time.’ It was wonderful to see the rapport between you and Tilda Swinton at the BFI. As you comment online, ‘the talk on the platform felt like a natural extension of our years of work together, shoulder to shoulder in England, Russia and Uzbekhistan’. Adding, then, to a ‘body’ of the Neutral, perhaps also there is something to be considered of a certain hospitality, friendship, love. The ability to pick up from where one has left off without a net of politics is surely a neutral quality that is the very definition of friendship – beyond need, want, possession etc. As you write: ‘collaborations in all their myriad manifestations are extraordinarily intense relationships. Work becomes love and love is in the work.’
‘In the end,’ Barthes writes, ‘[the Neutral’s] essential form is a protestation … the Neutral is this irreducible No: a No so to speak suspended in front of the hardenings of both faith and certitude and incorruptible by either one’. Here Barthes opens out upon a sense of vitality, or vital force. This No is a Yes, for it is that which says Yes to life. It is about birth, not death. As an ethical injunction, the Neutral forces us to think anew and undermines what Barthes suggest we must work against: the dominant ‘will-to-possess’. The Neutral is, according to Barthes, ‘the difference that separates the will-to-live from the will-to-possess … as the drifting from arrogance,’ he writes, ‘I leave the will-to-possess, I move to the will-to-live’. Tired of the insistence to assert meaning, to impose critique, Barthes (in his late career) does not want or no longer believes in taking possession of what is before him. Understanding something is not to explain it, but to live with it. This is a difficult process, no doubt prone to failure (but that does not make it any less important). The fact we cannot fix locations of meaning in the Neutral suggests we cannot categorise, or possess it, only be in existence with it. To be touched by it and to reach out to touch it.